US elections in the balance

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Azza Radwan Sedky wraps up what to expect of the US presidential election debates


Biden and Trump have agreed to presidential debates ahead of November’s election, and tensions are already soaring in anticipation.  The first debate will take place on 27 June, the second on 10 September.

The televised duel will be a showdown like no other; in fact, some have already dubbed it the debate of the decade as it may determine who will be in the White House come November. Both debates will be broadcast only on CNN and ABC, with no live audience.

To date the debates are limited to Biden and Trump. Robert F Kennedy, a third-party candidate, must achieve at least 15 per cent support from four qualifying national polls in order to attend the debate; so far he has not.

Trump and Biden debated during the 2020 presidential election, drawing millions of viewers, but the debates were deemed an absolute failure, with some critics calling for no presidential debates after that. The first debate turned into an incoherent shouting match. At one point, Trump continuously interrupted Biden, so Biden told him to shut up. The second debate was slightly more civil.

The plan is to mute the microphones during the current debates unless the candidate is expected to speak so that interruptions cannot take place. This may be to Biden’s benefit; however, muting a microphone does not stop interruptions. It merely stops the audience from hearing it. If Trump opts for interrupting despite the muting, Biden may be distracted and come across as confused.

People know a lot about the two candidates since they have heard them speak repeatedly, but will the debates affect change? Americans will watch as two political figures who harbour much animosity towards each other face off, but what will they and the world be watching for?

Many factors may sway the viewers and determine the winner: the age factor, their fitness and prowess, what their intentions are for domestic woes such as abortion laws, refugees, and border control, and the international foreign policy they will implement especially regarding the Ukraine and Gaza wars.

Analysts expect Trump to do better than Biden. Trump, himself, is lowering the bar for Biden by emphasising his inability to debate. “He is the worst person I’ve ever debated,” he said, calling him a “dithering old man.” This raises Trump’s own bar as it lowers Biden’s, so if Biden speaks eloquently, which he has done in previous debates, Trump will lose.

It is also an opportunity for Biden to defend his record over the last four years; as an incumbent, he can focus on his salient achievements and account for his accomplishments in the previous four years.

Americans anticipate both candidates to maintain their usual goof-ups. Many voters expect Biden to forget where he is, try to sit on a chair that isn’t there, walk off the wrong side of the stage, or be unable to stand for the duration of the speech. However, Biden’s allies claim he is as sharp as ever, though, according to Trump, “if this horrible individual finishes the debate... if he’s standing, if he’s standing, they’ll say it was a brilliant performance.”

Though the expectations are that Trump will do better during the debates, he may prove the forecasters wrong. Trump plays off crowds and the lack of an audience will have him lose some of his potential. Besides, Trump’s views fluctuate on important issues, and he rambles on with stories that have no aim. He also tends to blast his rivals and anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye with him. He called Justice Juan Merchan, who presided over one of his court cases, “crooked” and “a devil,” and considers President Biden “the worst president in the history of our country.”  Trump can also turn off viewers by boasting or coming across as a bully, as he did in previous debates, while sneering and interrupting his opponent.

Both Biden and Trump come with extensive baggage. Court cases against Trump are piling up, not that they are affecting his following, while Biden’s performance has not been up to par, his eloquence slumping. James Oliphant of Reuters says: “One accuses his rival of being unhinged and a danger to democracy, while the other accuses his opponent of being senile and corrupt.”

But more importantly, both figures will be scrutinised for their ability to govern, whether they are up to the task, and if age will be a factor. Biden is 81 and Trump just turned 78; they are the two oldest presidential candidates in US history.

Viewers will also be looking for how they respond to pressure. Trump may call on Biden to speak about his son Hunter’s guilty verdict, and Biden may steer the conversation towards Trump’s court cases. Undoubtedly, Biden will also speak about the 6 January 2021 insurrection and the role Trump played in inciting riots and trying to overturn election results.


The writer is a former professor of communication who is based in Vancouver, Canada.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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